What Is a Bridge Camera?

Understanding equipment for budding photographers

Top view of a bridge camera with mega zoom lens extended.

A bridge camera is a fixed-lens camera that combines the body style and some of the capabilities of a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera with the usability of a point-and-shoot camera. It is neither wholly a DSLR camera or a point-and-shoot camera, but instead is a hybrid with some features that are unique to bridge cameras.

Bridge Camera vs DSLR

To understand what a bridge camera is, it's necessary to first understand what it is not. Many people see the form of a bridge camera — it has an easy-to-handle body like a DSLR — and assume that it's a DSLR camera. It is not.

Different Lens Types

There are two main differences between a DSLR and a bridge camera.The most important difference is that DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses. A photograph can switch between a 35 mm and wide-angle or zoom lens to ensure they get the perfect shot for every picture.

A bridge camera has a fixed lens. There is one lens, attached to the camera, that cannot be changed. To be fair, the lens that is attached to the bridge camera often has a variety of capabilities. Some even offer wide-angle capabilities. But the most notable feature of a bridge camera is the zoom capabilities. Bridge cameras are often referred to as super zoom, or mega zoom cameras because the fixed lens can zoom to 400-600 mm, which is much greater than most DSLR lenses can zoom.

DSLR Cameras Have More Control

The other major difference between a DSLR and a bridge camera is control. A DSLR may have automatic controls, but it will also have a greater range of manual control, including the ability to set every adjustment — aperture, shutter speed, focus, and much more — for manual control which allows experienced photographers to capture the exact photo they imagine.

Bridge cameras often have some controls; they can usually switch between scene modes and lens capabilities, but that's where control over how images are captured ends. In this aspect, bridge cameras are more limited, much like point-and-shoot cameras.

Bridge Camera Limitations

In addition to the limitations that are mentioned above, bridge cameras may also have some other constraints. For example, although bridge cameras often have ultra-long zoom capabilities, that may not be as much of an advantage as it would seem.

The longer a lens zooms, the less stable the camera gets. Even though many bridge camera manufacturers try to counter this with stability and anti-shake features, when the lens is extended to it's longest zoom, the picture may still appear slightly blurry or have more noise, which is incorrect color variations at the pixel level, than you would expect. Adding a tripod when taking long-range pictures helps, but doesn't completely counter these issues.

Another problem that users report is that bridge cameras are not great for high-speed shooting situations, such as sports photography where the subject is moving. Shooting in these situations can introduce noise, or cause images to be slightly blurry.

Bridge cameras may also have file limitations for photographers that prefer to use Photoshop or other image editing capabilities to touch-up their photos. Most bridge cameras cannot capture images in RAW format, which is less processed, allowing for more control when editing. Instead, bridge cameras usually process images in JPEG format, which is a compression format that reduced images size by removing pixels the camera software deems as unimportant.

Bridge Camera Capabilities

While bridge cameras do have some features that professional photographers would find hindering to producing great images, for the casual photographer, or for the photography beginner, they also offer a plethora of useful features. For example, most bridge cameras have HD video capability that includes dual, stereo microphones that allow capturing both great video and sound.

Bridge cameras also have a large, LCD format that allows photographers to see the image they are capturing, and often that screen will tilt or swivel to allow better viewing from different angles. That, combined with image stabilization capabilities allows new photographers to capture better images than they might be able to with a point-and-shoot camera.

The Cost of Bridge Cameras

Some budding photographers look at bridge cameras assuming they will reduce the cost of getting into photography. That's not true. Bridge cameras prices can be lower than high-end DSLR cameras, but there are bridge cameras that cost just as much as those DSLRs. And they generally cost more than point and shoot cameras.

Where amateur or casual photographers will find the benefit of investing in a bridge camera more cost efficient than purchasing a DSLR is in the cost of additional lenses. Since the bridge camera has a multi-function, fixed lens, there's no additional cost once the camera is purchased. DSLR camera users must purchase different lenses for different purposes, and those lenses often cost as much as, or more than, the camera body.

Who Should Use a Bridge Camera?

Professional photographers may find bridge cameras limiting. The inability to manually control camera settings and being limited to certain file formats don't allow for the greatest control over the final results of photographs taken.

Casual users — family photographers, or someone who wants to have a camera round for those special occasions — and budding photographers that are just starting to learn to compose photos will find that a bridge camera offers a nice transition from a point-and-shoot camera. It allows the photographer to have some control and to customize the focal length of shots without having to guess at the other settings necessary to capture a great photo.